To a great degree, the person we are right now is a current result of the accumulative experiences of our lifetime. Certainly genetics plays a role in "who we are", but our upbringing and interactions to this point in time have had major impact in both our continuing development and core values of today. Part of who I am today is someone championing a different view of impairment; who believes that "disability" for many is most disabling in the mind. A story sent to me last week reminded me of something in my past, and made me realize that the foundation for this belief came much earlier than I thought.
My media person forwarded an article Friday they thought would interest me. They were right, but not for the reasons either of us expected. It is a story that unexpectedly took me back in time, to something and someone I do not think of very often anymore. The story, found here, was a positive one about a young woman in Illinois who works for a financial institution as a Customer Service Operations Assistant. She likes her job, and her employer likes her. She is motivated to try her best at it. She was placed in this job by an organization designed to help her succeed. Job coaches worked with both her and her employer, and stayed with them until she got the hang of things. Even now they routinely check in with her. They do this, you see, because she has Down's syndrome. They are helping her live and dream in a world beyond her disability.
This story resonated with me, and not because it was another successful story about defeating disability. No, this was extremely personal, and eerily familiar. You see, I lived this story from the employer side many years ago. I just never put it all together until this article landed in my email.
Long ago, I worked in the restaurant industry. My family owned a motel, restaurant and lounge when I was growing up, and after college, it seemed a natural career path. While I was a General Manager of a restaurant here in Florida, I was approached by Easter Seals of Southwest Florida. They had a new life assistance program for their clients, and were looking for employers who would give their people a chance at real world jobs. While I would eventually employ a number of their clients, none would compare to the first, a man named Paul.
Paul was their first client to be successfully placed in the private workforce. He was what they call today "Intellectually disabled", although at the time he was referred to as mentally retarded. He had an IQ of 56. His story was a sad one. His mother had both mental and substance abuse problems, and was never able to care for him. He had bounced from state home to state home, enduring incredible abuse and neglect in the process. The Easter Seals program was a new concept, and included placing him in his own apartment, as well as teaching him basic life skills. While his life could not in any way be described as a pleasant one to this point, we quickly grew to know Paul as the most upbeat guy in the room.
Training Paul as a dishwasher was a challenge. I would love to tell you I was a patient prince, but sadly at times that would be a lie. It was a trying time, but with Paul's skilled coach's support, no one gave up. That was truer for no one more so than Paul.
In relatively short order I came to realize I had a happy and proud employee, who wanted to work, and would try to do whatever was asked of him. And reliable? He was dependability on steroids; I could set my watch by Paul and the Manatee County Bus system, which faithfully delivered him to work every morning. Paul was never the fastest, or the most efficient. But he was still the best. I would take his positive attitude and reliability over speed and efficiency any day. Slow and steady definitely won this race.
But there was more to this experience. Paul was adopted by his co-workers. They were protective of him, and watched out for him. A local newspaper featured his story, and customers came offering cash and clothes for the young man whose story had captured their hearts. I was awarded Easter Seals of Southwest Florida's "Employer of the Year" for 1987, largely based on his success. All of us benefited, and were indeed all working to overcome his impairment.
There were dark moments. We encountered occasional bias and prejudice. I will never forget one day standing dumbfounded as an old woman, in front of her extremely embarrassed adult children, berated me for "having people like that out here", saying I should keep them "chained in back". I was young and stupid, working for a large corporation, and simply told her I was sorry it offended her. Today, in my older, grumpier state, I would have told her to shove her incredible ignorance up her - well, you know the rest.
But those negative occurrences were few and far between.
Paul worked for me until I took a District Manager position and left the state. Over time I lost track of him, and am not sure where he is today. In retrospect, I think I learned more from him than he ever learned from us. He was a guy who just wanted to be part of something bigger, to work in the real world and carry his own weight for a while. I hope he still has that independence. I hope he is still working somewhere; showing up every day, on time, working and dreaming outside of his impairment, continuing to defeat the damning curse of disability. This of course, while training a new generation of managers that anything is possible if you don't know your limitations.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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